The Inferno (Hell) is the first part of The Divine Comedy, followed by the Purgatorio (Purgatory) and Paradiso (Heaven). It is a classic Christian theological text that uses strong poetic imagination and allegorical allusion. Though originally written in Italian between 1308 and 1321 AD, the work is widely translated and its themes are drawn upon by generations of writers since. Written in first person narrative, the comedy is about the imaginative events and experiences of Dante as he traverses through Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso in his afterlife. The people and conditions he encounters in these places pose moral dilemmas and questions to Dante. By successfully resolving such challenges, Dante (and by extension anyone with faith in Christ) steadily attains spiritual salvation. This essay concerns itself with Inferno and recurrent imageries and motifs found in this section of the epic.
The first part Inferno begins on the eve of Good Friday in the year 1300. The world of the Inferno is dangerous and dark. Dante is lost in a thick forest (a symbol for sin) and he is haunted by wild carnivorous beasts such as lions and wolfs. As Dante suffers in despair, the ancient poet Virgil comes to his rescue. Together, both of them seek repentance for their sins. Their sins are broadly classified under self-indulgent sins (lust, gluttony, wrath and greed), violent sins and malicious sins (dishonesty and treason). (Alvarez 89) Having successfully negotiated the diabolical challenges in this hellish underground, Dante and Virgil move on to the Purgatorio, which is an imposing mountain situated on an island.
While Dante as the protagonist travels through Inferno, he depicts his evidence using bright and dramatic imagery. One of the key motifs is that of music. Here the author is trying to integrate the visual experience of Hell with the aural. For example, the Inferno is described as a place ‘filled with cries’. Dante devotes “full terzinas to the sounds of the wailing, and mentions what he sees almost as an afterthought when he asks Virgil.” (Roglieri 149) The musical sounds produced in the Inferno, however, are not the sublime and the sacred as high music aspires to be. To the contrary, it is antithetical and can be termed as ‘anti-music’. The vile sounds made in this music are so unbearable that Dante resorts to closing his ears in a desperate attempt to block it. In this powerful imagery employed by Dante, the ‘anti-music’ represents
“…a perversion of everything that is conventional to music. Completely lacking in order, it is usually composed of cries and lamentations (a perverted form of vocal music); it is sometimes even produced by body parts (a perverted form of instrumental music); and it is often connected to writhing bodies (a perverted kind of dance).” (Roglieri 149)